EPA takes aim at Obama-era regulation of mercury at coal plants

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The Mercury and Air Toxics Standards (MATS) rule has been in place for years, and energy companies that own coal-fired power plants are already in compliance. "Since then, scientists have said, mercury pollution from power plants has declined more than 80 percent nationwide".

EPA said it was "proposing that it is not 'appropriate and necessary" to regulate HAP (Hazardous Air Pollution) emissions from coal- and oil-fired power plants... because the costs of such regulation grossly outweigh the quantified HAP benefits'. The rule, which acting EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler signed Thursday, is expected to appear in the federal register in the coming weeks.

Since August, the Environmental Protection Agency has been reconsidering the justification for the rule.

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It's also the administration's latest proposed move on behalf of the USA coal industry, which has been struggling in the face of competition from natural gas and other cheaper, cleaner forms of energy.

Yet the EPA move also had its detractors within the industry.

The EPA said the proposal is meant to "correct flaws".

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The New York Times previously reported the proposed rule. Coal power plants in this country are the largest single manmade source of mercury pollutants, which enters the food chain through fish and other items that people consume. Mercury emitted into the air can end up in soil and water, where it has "toxic effects on the nervous, digestive and immune systems, and on lungs, kidneys, skin and eyes", in addition to causing developmental defects in children and babies, according to the World Health Organization.

Estimates like that, however, are at the heart of the current dispute. The shift could have implications for public health protections across the federal government, experts said.

The Obama administration found up to $6 million annually in health benefits directly from curbing mercury.

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Research shows that when coal is burned, it releases mercury into the air, posing a health risk, particularly for babies developing in the womb and young children. For that reason, the original rule argued against using a strict cost-benefit analysis to decide whether the regulation should be imposed, said Joseph Goffman, executive director of Harvard Law School's Environmental and Energy Law Program.